God's Providence Over All

Mark R. Talbot
Wednesday, June 6th 2007
Sep/Oct 2002

When I was seventeen, I fell about fifty feet off a Tarzan-like rope swing, breaking two of my thoracic vertebrae; I became paralyzed from my waist down. I spent six months in hospitals regaining some use of my legs. Once I had regained a little movement, the doctors tried to help me regain more by having me crawl to breakfast each morning. At the time, I had developed an undetected calcified stone that had formed in my bladder and that was causing raging bladder infections. And so, as the doctors would put me on the floor each morning, I would wet myself and remain soaked for the rest of the day. When I left the hospital six months later, with the stone finally removed, I was able to control my bladder in most situations and could walk awkwardly with a cane.

I'm now fifty-two. My youthful accident has had several long-term consequences. Walking is increasingly more difficult. Especially at first, I worried about bladder and bowel control. I walk with great effort, by forcing my leg muscles to spasm, and consequently raising my blood pressure. Physical discomfort is pretty steady. It is hard to find ways to exercise adequately to stay in cardiovascular shape. In the last ten years or so, I have developed sleep-robbing leg spasms.

Yet my accident's enduring spiritual effect has been that although I doubted God's existence before it happened, ever since my physical condition has assured me that God loves me, especially when new physiological complications arise.

God and the Problem of Evil

For many people, the "problem of evil" is their biggest hurdle to trusting God. Most simply, the problem is this: If an almighty and all-good God exists, then why is there any evil? For if God is almighty, then he could prevent evil; and if he is all good, then he would want to. Evil seems to testify against God's power, or his goodness, or his very existence. And it often seems most telling when we-or those we love-are in its grip.

I never found myself asking after my accident, Why did this happen to me? From the beginning, it seemed obvious that God was manifesting his love to me through it. Yet after I had been out of the hospital for a while, I did find myself asking, Why is this continuing to happen to me? If the God I love and worship is all-powerful and all-good, then why doesn't he heal me now?

For a while, I sought a miracle. But I came to believe that a miraculous healing wasn't God's will for me-and this didn't involve any lack of faith on my part. I then tried to give God the opportunity to heal me gradually. During my first two springs as an undergraduate at Seattle Pacific University in Washington, I spent hours struggling up and down Queen Anne Hill while constantly praying that God would use those labors as the means to restore my walking ability.

Finally, it became clear that it was not God's will to make me physically whole again. And then I found myself wanting to understand why.

My First Answer: The Free-Will Defense

My attempt to understand God's relation to this world's evils has gone through three stages. I worked out my first answer over a year of thinking about the problem virtually every evening during part of my sophomore and junior college years. It was my own rude version of what I afterward learned that both philosophers and theologians call the "free-will defense." Free-will theists attempt to preserve our belief in God's almightiness and complete goodness by arguing that this world's evils are fully explained as the effects of wrong choices made by God's free creatures. Moral evil results whenever some morally responsible creature decides to do what is wrong. Natural evil-any evil in our world that is not moral evil, such as hurricanes, influenza epidemics, and random birth defects-then comes about indirectly as a consequence of moral evil.

Sometimes the links between moral and natural evil are obvious. Suppose a drunk driver runs a stoplight and hits another car, crippling its occupant. The long-term pain and disability resulting from that accident are natural evil, but natural evil that clearly has its origin in the moral evil of someone driving drunk. In other cases, such as with influenza epidemics, the links aren't so clear. Yet free-will theists maintain those links are really there. All of creation groans, they remind us, because of Adam's sin.

With this distinction between moral and natural evil in hand, free-will theists then add this: Creatures can be morally responsible only if they are really free, which means, according to free-will theism, that they must not only be able to choose to do what they actually do but that they must also be free to choose to act in other ways. Exactly what this means can be pretty difficult to explain. But for now all we need to keep in mind is this. This view of freedom means that even God cannot govern what his free creatures choose. For as soon as he would do so, they would no longer be free. So if God is committed to making free creatures, then the "cost" of their being free is the risk that they will make bad or wicked choices. Even an all-powerful God must live with this risk.

As I thought about this in my college years, I reasoned like this: God has created us to love him. But love isn't love if it is coerced. Genuine love, then, requires free will in the free-will theist's sense-it requires that we are free to choose to love God or not. God has given us free will hoping that we will freely choose to love him. But in giving us this freedom, he runs the risk of our choosing not to love him. Not loving God is bad; indeed, it is the ultimate source of all of this world's evils. But for God not to have created some free creatures who are capable of love would have been even worse. Consequently, God in his goodness has created free creatures who can love him but who can also do wicked and evil things.

This concept seemed to explain why God hadn't kept me from having my accident. He could have done so, I thought, only by infringing on my free will. It also seemed to explain why he left me as he did. God would not heal me because that would threaten other people's freedom. For if God were to heal me, then it would be obvious that there is a God who will act to remove the sufferings of those who love and worship him. Then God's power and goodness would become so apparent to those who had seen what he had done for me that they would, in effect, be forced to worship him. Then only fools would freely turn away from him. So just as evil first came into our world because of wrong free choices by morally responsible human beings, so God really has no choice but to allow it to remain if he is not to make his existence, power, and goodness overwhelmingly clear. And if it were that obvious, then human beings would no longer be free to love him in a way that was truly uncoerced.

My Second Position: Sometimes God Ordains Real Evils for Our Overall Good

I worked out that answer with little reference to Scripture and no reference to historical theology. It seemed the natural solution to my question of why God would allow me to continue suffering as I did. But as time passed, I gradually saw that the free-will defense was inadequate in various ways. Initially, this involved my realizing that my continuing disability was the chief means by which God continued to bless me and keep me near to himself. As my accident had more bad effects-weakening hands from damaging my ulnar nerves when, losing my balance, I fall on my elbows, coming under permanent risk of stroke from dissecting my left-internal carotid while trying to keep in shape-I found that, rather than these things becoming occasions for doubting God's goodness to me, they became sources of spiritual strength by helping me to see where I could not place my heart.

In other words, I came to realize that sometimes God was protecting me from specific kinds of self-sufficiency (which is really a kind of idolatry) by taking various goods away from me so that I would not be tempted to rest satisfied in them. Every morning as I get up, my physical condition prompts me to trust God rather than to rely on my own strength. And so, in this second stage of my coming to understand how God works in and through our difficulties, I came to realize that some things that are really evil-Christians are not Christian Scientists who say that evil is illusory-are also really good and that, as such, these evils are actually ordained by God. What does it mean to say that God ordains something? It means that he has eternally willed it to come about.

Free-will theists reject the claim that God ordains evil. They want to say that if something is really evil, then God does not will it in any way. Of course, they readily concede that God can and often does bring good out of evil, but that is not the same as saying that God ordains what is really evil for our good.

Yet this is exactly what Scripture claims. Genesis provides us with one of the clearest instances of this when Joseph summarizes what God was doing through his brothers' wickedness in this way: "As for you," he says to his brothers, "you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today" (Gen. 50:20). The word "evil" here is the Hebrew ra' in the feminine singular. And the "it" in Joseph's declaration that "God meant it for good" is also feminine singular. So this "it" clearly takes as its antecedent the previous ra'. But this means that Joseph's claim is most accurately translated like this: "As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant that evil for good."

In other words, Joseph is here referring to just one specific event-namely, his brothers selling him into Egypt-and describing it in two different ways: the same specific event was meant by his brothers for evil even as it was meant by God for good.

As I began to think more about this, I realized that these dual descriptions run throughout the Scriptures. Indeed, they are central to the Bible's interpretation of our Lord's crucifixion. In that case, the most awful act ever done-the crucifixion by "lawless men" of God's only Son, "the Holy and Righteous One," the very "Author of life" (Acts 2:23 and 3:14, 15)-was and is also the most wonderful event that ever happened because it was the means by which God was reconciling us to himself (see 2 Cor. 5:18-21).

My Third and Final Realization: Nothing Befalls Us-Nothing Good and Nothing Evil-That Is Not Ultimately from God

This realization gave me a new way of understanding how God relates to this world's evils. In free-will theism, God must work to bring good from evils he did not ordain. God works to make good of bad situations. Because he is almighty, he can do a lot to salvage what we have messed up. And because he is good, he does what he can. Yet he is still merely working to repair what he did not ordain. Indeed, if "open theists" are right, then God is often working to repair what he could not even anticipate. Open theism is free-will theism taken to its logical extreme. It claims that because God has given us free will, even he cannot know what choices we will make and so the portion of the future that will be determined by still-unmade free human choices is "open" and unknown to him as well as to us.

Thus, in his God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence, the open theist John Sanders writes that God had "no reason to suspect" that Adam and Eve would sin. He claims that God and Jesus only realized in the Garden of Gethsemane that Jesus would have to be crucified. "The path of the cross," he says, "comes about only through God's interaction with humans in history. Until [Gethsemane] other routes were, perhaps, open." In Gethsemane, however, "Father and Son … both come to understand that there is no other way." At that point in Jesus' life, Sanders states, "the canyon narrows even for God." So Father and Son resolve to make the best of it as Jesus proceeds to the cross. Yet even as they do so, Sanders tells us, they do not know whether this "gambit" will work-whether, in other words, Jesus' death will lead to anyone's salvation.

In the third stage of my attempting to understand God's relation to this world's evils, I realized that I, as a Christian, was obliged to try to understand what all of God's Word had to say about this. For the Scriptures, like other writings, can be twisted to support almost any position if they are quoted selectively enough (see 2 Pet. 3:16). For instance, it is only by very selective quotation that open theism can seem to be a Christian option because several of its claims contradict central biblical themes. What do open theists do with verses such as Luke 24:25-26, "And Jesus said to them, 'O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?'" Sanders cites these verses only to dismiss them, although they contradict his claim that until Gethsemane Christ's crucifixion was not God's settled plan for redeeming sinful human beings (see also Matt. 26:24; Luke 22:22; Acts 2:23; Rev. 13:8; among other passages).

As I have attempted to understand what the whole Bible says about the problem of evil, I have discovered that Scripture supports what I have sensed since the time of my accident. This is that nothing befalls us-nothing good and nothing bad-that does not ultimately come from God's hand.

You will recall that I said it is often right after some complication of my accident-a messy fall or something worse-that I feel God's love and care for me most intensely. My sense is not that God will "patch things up" and "make them right" in spite of what has just happened; it is that God's love and care for me are somehow the cause of what has just happened, as bad as in one sense it really is. This is what Scripture both asserts and assumes.

Yet here, if we are not to misunderstand Scripture, we must be very careful. Genesis 50:20 gives us the primary picture: "As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant that evil for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today." Here Joseph's brothers' evil intention and God's good intention are butted up against each other, both referring to-both taken as accounting for-the same event, but referring to or accounting for it under differing descriptions. By their act, Joseph's brothers meant to do him harm; by means of their act, God meant to do Joseph (and many others) good.

Earlier, in Genesis 45:4-8, when Joseph first reveals who he is to his brothers, these two separate ways of accounting for the same event are even more clearly differentiated. There Joseph first says, twice, "you sold me into Egypt," referring to his brothers' act; and then he says, three times, "God sent me here," referring to the same event. Indeed, the final time Joseph refers to this event, he even seems to deny that his brothers played any real part at all in his coming to Egypt-"So it was not you who sent me here, but God" (45:8)-in order to emphasize God's primary agency.

As we shall see, this does not really deny Joseph's brothers' agency and responsibility, but Joseph's words at the very least suggest that nothing-not even wicked human acts-happen without God's ordaining them. Some Scriptures oblige us to think very carefully about the relationship between divine and human agency (see, e.g., Mark 6:5; Matt. 23:37; Ezek. 18:30-32). Yet, nevertheless, the Scriptures do either presume or claim that God ordains everything, including natural and moral evil. And while some Scriptures oblige us to think very carefully about the relationship between divine and human agency (see, e.g., Mark 6:5; Matt. 23:37; Ezek. 18:30-32), nevertheless, the Scriptures do either presume or claim that God ordains everything, including natural and moral evil. Thus, Amos asks rhetorically, "Is a trumpet blown in a city, and the people are not afraid? Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it?" (Amos 3:6 my emphasis). And through Isaiah God declares, "I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil" (in Isa. 45:7, "create" here is bara', as in Gen. 1:1; and "evil" is again ra'.)

Other Scriptures support this straightforward way of reading Joseph's words (see Exod. 4:11; Deut. 32:39; 1 Sam. 1:6, 7; Lam. 3:32, 38). And so we see that the Scriptures both assume and assert that, no matter whether we are dealing with the moral or the natural realms, no matter whether we are focusing on moral good and evil or natural good and evil, absolutely nothing comes about that God does not will in some sense.

"All right," you say, "but in what sense? Does he merely permit evil things to happen? Or does his willing them amount to something more?"

Space does not allow me to make the full case for what I think Scripture shows us here, but let me state what I believe it shows while citing a couple of Scripture passages in support of my view. The biblical view is that God has ordained or willed or planned everything that happens in our world from before creation. God is the primary agent-the primary cause, the final and ultimate explanation-of everything that happens, yet the causal relationship between God and his creatures is such that his having foreordained everything takes nothing away from their creaturely power and efficacy. Their activity-as "secondary causes" considered simply on the created level-fully explains what happens in this world, unless we are dealing with a situation in which God has miraculously intervened and thus overridden mere creaturely causality. And this is as true of the relationship between divine and free human agency as it is between divine and natural agency.

So we should hold that human beings are free and fully responsible for their actions, even while holding that what they freely do was ordained by God before creation. It was Joseph's brothers' free and unfettered and wicked intention to do him harm; it was God's free and unfettered and good intention that Joseph's brothers would freely intend to do him harm, but that their free act would actually bring good to him and many others.

But how can this possibly be? How can Joseph's brothers have acted freely if what they did was what God had previously ordained? How can God govern the choices of human beings without that entailing that those choices are no longer free? The correct answer to these questions is that we cannot understand how these things can possibly be. We cannot understand how some human act can be fully accounted for in terms of God's having freely intended it without that taking away the freedom of its human intenders. Yet-and this is the really crucial point-we can understand why we cannot understand it. It is because any attempt on our part to understand it involves our trying to understand the unique relationship between the Creator and his creatures in terms of our understanding of some creature-to-creature relationship. But this, it should be clear, involves us in a kind of "category mistake" that dooms our attempts at understanding it from the start. A category mistake involves attempting to think about something under the wrong category. How the Creator's agency relates to his creature's agency is to be categorized quite differently from how any one of his creature's agency relates to any other creature's agency. This should be clear merely by our remembering that God has created everything ex nihilo-out of nothing-while all creaturely creation involves some sort of limited action on some preexisting "stuff."

When Scripture pulls back the veil enough to tell us anything about the relationship between divine and human agency, it merely reveals what Joseph affirms in Genesis 50:20: it affirms both divine and human agency, with each kind of agency referring to-each taken as accounting for-the same event, but each referring to or accounting for it under differing descriptions. Thus, Scripture reveals that both human agency and divine agency are to be fully affirmed without attempting to tell us how that can be.

We find this dual agency in passages such as Acts 2:23 and 4:27-28, which state that "this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men" and that "truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place." Various phrases of these two passages clearly affirm both divine and human agency. Similar statements assuming the ultimate consistency and indeed complementary nature of divine and human agency are found in the accounts of Jonah being cast into the sea (see especially Jon. 1:14-15 and 2:3) and in Luke's account of Paul's shipwreck (Acts 27:13-44).

In summary, as my knowledge of Scripture grew, I found myself prompted to affirm the age-old Christian doctrine of God's complete providence over all, by which he has sovereignly ordained, before the world began, everything that happens, but in a way that does no violence to creation's secondary causes. (I say "age-old" because it has been held by many of the church's greatest theologians, including Augustine and Aquinas.)

But Doesn't This Raise the Problem of Evil All Over Again?

But doesn't taking God as ordaining everything, including evil human acts, raise many new questions, such as, Must God then be taken as an evildoer because he has, in at least one sense, willed what is evil?

In response to this question, we must note that Scripture never attributes wickedness or evildoing to God, even while it emphasizes that he has ordained what is evil. To attribute evildoing to God merely because he ordains what is evil is to make that "category mistake" again; it is to try to think of the relation between God and his world in a way that inevitably smuggles in some illicit creature-to-creature analogy. Scripture prohibits our doing that (see Exod. 9:14; Job 42:1-6; Isa. 46:8-11; Jer. 10:6, 7; Rom. 9:19, 20).

I would not deny for a moment how hard it can be to avoid thinking about God's relation to the world in a way that attributes evildoing to God simply because he ordains what is evil. How could a good God ordain the Holocaust? How can he ordain the sexual abuse of even one child? How can he ordain the slow, lingering death of someone I love? Yet, as with all other Christian doctrines, the test of the truth of this doctrine is not that we find it plausible or attractive to us but that we find it in Scripture. Romans 8:28 assures us that God works all things together for good for those who love God and who are called according to his purpose. Yet how some very evil event that God has ordained could possibly be intended by him for some Christian's ultimate good may very well not be apparent as the evil occurs nor even, perhaps, at any time in that Christian's earthly life. Yet stories like Joseph's remind us that appearance and reality are different things.

In any case, whenever I am in some dire medical situation, I remind myself of all of the implications of this doctrine of God's providence over all. I remind myself that it is my business, in that situation, to do everything I can to bring about a good result, for I am obliged to exercise my agency responsibly. Consequently, I must select careful, exceedingly competent doctors who will take their jobs with the utmost seriousness; I need to listen to the counsel of more than one of them; and so on. Yet at the same time I am comforted in knowing that, at the end of the day, God's hand is in it all-that I would not be in this dire situation if God had not ordained it and that whatever happens is what he has ordained for my good because I am one of his precious children. It is my responsibility to do everything I can to bring the situation to a good conclusion, but it is also my responsibility to take the situation, as grim as it is, as coming from God's hand. In the last analysis, then, my ultimate responsibility is to trust him and let my trust of him show in my interactions with everyone else in the midst of the crisis.

It is by looking at whatever happens to me in this way-and only by looking at it this way-that I can do what Paul urges me to do: "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you" (1 Thess. 5:16-18; my emphasis).

Wednesday, June 6th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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